Tips for writing better copy

Of all the skills required to practice business-to-business marketing communications, copywriting is the most important by far. Copywriting is the very essence of “message packaging,” so I find it ironic that many clients think they need to write copy for their agency or in-house group (the message packaging team). Ironic because I can count on one hand the number of technical persons (e.g., engineers or chemists) I’ve encountered in more than 40 years that could truly write good copy. Most technical people can’t write intelligible prose to save their lives, and the really insightful ones know that inherently. Writing requires daily practice, and I am not just talking about e-mails and interoffice memos.

Having said that, however, if a non-writer is determined to write for promotional purposes, at least keep these 10 guidelines in mind:

Prepare an outline. Before starting to write, take a few minutes to organize your thoughts. Even if the outline is a handwritten list of key points, it will help focus the overall messages and develop a logical sequence to the points you wish to make.

Keep the audience in mind. Ask yourself, “What does my audience need to know? What concepts or facts are most likely to catch their attention? Will they understand the buzzwords?” I’m constantly amazed at how technical writers make sweeping assumptions about their readers’ interest level or technical knowledge. Why risk losing the audience when you can define a few basic terms for easier comprehension?

Explain your key idea early. Note that I said key idea, not key ideas. Most communications pieces should emphasize a single idea and include secondary points only after the main point is explained. Ads, mailers, tradeshow promotions or whatever become jumbled and confusing when their creators try to do too much with them. Use your key idea as a stopper, something to engage your readers’ interest and pull them in to the document’s body.

Decide on a call to action. It is amazing how many business-to-business marcom pieces have no call to action or even a weak one, such as, “Contact your nearest ABC rep for all the details.” Prospects are too busy to figure out what action you want them to take. Besides, you can set the hook with a thoughtful incentive, such as offering a white paper on the major considerations concerning the subject of your communications, or a free trial or product demonstration, or a brochure that does more than simply describe the product. (How about calling it the “XYZ Selection Guide”?)

There are many ways to make your fulfillment piece more enticing if you put some thought to it.

Use examples to reinforce your point. Most sales and product managers are reluctant these days to make specific claims; I guess they got their hands slapped somewhere along the way. When you ask them basic questions, such as “How much faster?” or “Why is it cheaper?” they sidestep the question with the skill of a politician. But for precisely these reasons, many b-to-b customers are skeptical of broadly phrased, boilerplate claims. Inserting a specific example after the sweeping statement boosts your credibility immensely.

Use features and benefits. I wish I had $20 for every time I’ve read a “bold” advertising statement that included a product feature but didn’t explain the benefit, or conversely, that waxed poetic about a significant benefit but didn’t explain what feature (or features) made that possible. Many technical managers honestly believe you don’t need to explain these things, that their customers know the answers and it would be condescending to expound on the subject. I’m here to tell you they 1) don’t know the answers you want them to know, and 2) don’t have time to worry about it. They simply turn the page or chuck your fluffy piece in the receptacle for fluffy pieces located conveniently beneath their desk.

One shot for copy editing. When a committee needs to look at your copy, adopt this important rule: The more the merrier on the first draft, provided they meet your reasonable deadline for getting comments back to you. But on draft No. 2, reduce the number of copy approvers to one or two; anything else is chaotic, not to mention an inefficient use of company resources.

Break out the thesaurus. Look for special words that will inject some life into your copy—not big, difficult-to-understand words, but unusual phrasing or maybe an unexpected adjective that causes the reader to stop and reflect for a moment. It’s the difference between “really strong mints” and “curiously strong mints”: One sticks in your brain, while the other sails on by.

Let it sit overnight. Whatever you do, don’t distribute your copy until you’ve had a chance to put it aside for awhile and can re-read it with fresh eyes. Often, I find that my copy needs considerable work the next morning when I thought it was nothing short of brilliant the night before. (this is probably good advice for all business correspondence.)

Sell the work. And finally, when the copywriter is face-to-face with the copy approvers, don’t let him give up on his ideas and words too quickly. Listen carefully, don’t get defensive and find out what the concerns are. Then, if you think his copy satisfies these concerns as written, defend it.

There are a gazillion ways to express anything, but different isn’t necessarily better. Besides, some managers see quick concessions as a sign of weakness; they want the writer to be strong and stand up for what he believes in, assuming he really does believe in it.

Business-to-business communications is about packaging complex messages for specialized audiences, and copywriting is the essential core of this process. You can’t succeed if you delegate it to an unskilled person.

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